- Eric Linklater: A Critical Biography by Michael Parnell
Murray, 376 pp, £16.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 7195 4109 3
It seems a shame that Eric Linklater was, as his biographer records, perpetually dissatisfied with how his work was received. His third novel (Juan in America, 1931) was the Book Society Choice (as was Private Angelo fifteen years later). He was at once in demand with Tauchnitz on the Continent. His articles were bought by the London dailies, the Listener, and Collier’s, his stories by Harper’s. Three of his novels were filmed (one by a remarkable artist, Peter Ustinov). His plays were produced in the West End, by Tyrone Guthrie, Ustinov, Gielgud. He won medals for two of his children’s books, and the War Office commissioned books from him, as did Drambuie and Rio Tinto Zinc. His works were finally issued by Cape in a collected edition named after his beloved Orkney, his stories in a collected volume; and (great admirer of royalty that he was) he was awarded the CBE. He earned enough to live in a big house in Orkney with a cook and two maids, and later to move to a beautifully distinctive small mansion (including a 15-acre croft and woods) on the smiling green slopes of Easter Ross.
Throughout all this he pleased himself. He did not write to other people’s formulae (or not exactly). When Cape wanted him to repeat the Juan model in his fourth novel, he declined, and wrote on Scottish themes. Then when he felt like a trip out East, to recover from getting married and setting up house, he went to Shanghai via India (where he toured in the company of his old servant from his days on the Times of India) to gather material for Juan in China. A month after publication it was outselling Gone with the Wind. When his conscience forbade him to go on with the squalid financial history of RTZ, he dropped it. He was equally, and admirably, his own master when he wrote off any future German editions of his novels because his Berlin publisher barred a Jewish translator for Magnus Merriman in 1935. He travelled far and wide throughout his long life, he drank plenty of whisky and good wine, he spent thousands of hours fishing for trout and salmon in peaceful Northern waters, and he was lavishly praised by Priestley, Harold Nicolson, Hugh Walpole, Storm Jameson and Sean O’Faolain.
So what else did the poor man want? He wanted to be deeply admired. He wanted to be rated a most excellent and serious writer by the most exacting and serious critics.
I never thought of him in that way, although he was the best-known writer in my home town of Aberdeen, where he went to my school and my university and died in a nursing-home a few doors down from my old home. His books were on our shelves, I bought him in Penguin when I was a student, his glinting quizzical image was familiar in the local papers. Without prompting from any sort of authority, I came to think of him as a spinner of yarns with a noticeably literary style, a fondness for showy verbal flights. None of his books made me want to reread it, or entered into me as a permanently illuminating myth, or defined for me anything that mattered to me. They passed the time, they executed a sprightly doodle or two in the margins of history (my own and my country’s), and there it ended.
Why should there not be books like that? Yet Mr Parnell, who has written one of the most uncritical biographies I have ever read, must sweat and puff to inflate his subject. Towards the end of his critique of Linklater’s fifth novel, Magnus Merriman, which was the best-selling novel of its year and Evening Standard Book of the Month, he writes: ‘Its tone and voice are as individual and recognisable as that of, say, D.H. Lawrence, and, it might be argued, as wise and valuable in thought, though richer in entertainment.’ This strikes me as nonsense. Here is the voice of that novel (and such stuff can be found all over at least the first half of his oeuvre):
The precipitous small hills that rise about Arthur’s Seat, for example, often appear to be of mountainous size and seem to fill the sky with shadowy vastness, so that one thinks of Asian peaks, and a panorama of the world’s high tablelands – plastered as if by glaciers with the shining names of Kanchenjunga and Demavend, of Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro – unrolls in the confusion of one’s mind. Then from the Castle that slow declivity, criss-crossed with mild grey streets, to the veiled lustre of the Forth and the pale gold lands beyond, may under certain skies be revealed in such kindliness that urbanity puts on a pastoral light and one can almost hear the bleating of sheep, and yet be not moved to cry Absit omen ... But once in alternate years there is a Saturday morning when Edinburgh is filled with men and women who truly may call the Castle their own and in their bearing not shame its ancient walls ...
The occasion is Scotland versus England at Murrayfield:
It is no muslin prettiness that walks here with the fleet-limbed barrel-chested youth of Scotland, but strong loveliness that can face the wind and keep its colour in the rain. They would not allure the delicate mind, the feeble-luxurious mind, the petty sensual mind that desires soft flesh, provocative warmth, and the titter of prurience; they would frighten the epicene, the pallid tribe of catamites and ingles and lisping nancies; but raiding Vikings would roar wish joy and straightaway seize them and carry them, scratching like tigers, to their ships.
How typical this is of that old Chesterbelloc vein in pre-Modernist writing: embarrassingly purple, not quite exact enough in its particulars, tending to list its goodies like a menu, prone to soar and exalt and exaggerate, unable to resist slipping into echoes of Shakespeare and Milton, Virgil, Horace, and the Bible. It smacks of the sort of overstated relish that used to get praised as ‘gusto’, and it easily becomes hearty – the idiom of the bully. I revelled in rugby myself, I still watch it, and to ‘stride’ over the moors is one of my most intense pleasures: but to champion such pursuits at the expense of these scapegoats with ‘delicate minds’ who are damned for being less virile than Norse rapists is coarse to the point of brutality. And this was no random outburst. It drew on settled attitudes. A quarter of a century later, in the story ‘A Sociable Plover’, the central character, a writer called Torquil Malone whose ‘circumstances and life-views’, as Mr Parnell allows, ‘are so similar to Eric’s own’, flytes against the very same bugbears: ‘They talk – it’s all talk and criticism now: no writing is regarded, except the first flatulent puffs of adolescence – they talk of the decline and decay, the sickness of the novel; but what’s sick and decadent is the general public, too fatly fed and aghast in spirit to think, feel, act and choose for itself; and on the fringe of the multitude there’s an etiolated frippery of homosexuals, and fellow-travellers with the homos, a swim of pop-eyed gudgeon living on the refuse and detritus that’s carried by the Seine out of the sewers of French intellect into the dead water of the English Channel.’
This is indeed recognisable as Linklater’s voice, and for me it embodies no wisdom at all, let alone any thought as valuable as Lawrence’s. Lawrence really knew the intelligentsia whom Linklater turns into stock butts. The Middleton Murry figure in ‘Jimmy and the Desperate Woman’, for example, who is so fascinated by the dourly self-sufficient miner’s wife yet so unable to match her kind of integrity. Rico the painter in ‘St Mawr’, fraught with panic and a fear of animality beneath his fashionable cool. The successful writer in ‘Two Blue Birds’ who toys with his secretary’s adoring emotions, preens himself before her yet stays safely short of touch or involvement. Lawrence creates such figures with a fullness of intuitive insight which really is wise and which is also ‘rich in entertainment’. The author’s voice which twines its sarky commentary round the beautifully-mimicked dialogue in ‘Two Blue Birds’ actually entertains or amuses me much more than the strenuous capers which often pass for comedy in Linklater: the drunken fight over who is the better poet, Shakespeare or Racine, in Magnus Merriman, for example, or the mockheroic battle between Lady Lysistrata’s female warriors and the British Army in The Impregnable Women, or the farcical sequence in the dark at a Hollywood party where Juan proposes in quick succession, inadvertently each time, to a pair of identical extras called Jill and Genevieve.
Linklater’s comedy tends to hinge on thumping devices placarded ‘Laugh Now’ or ‘Don’t Take This Seriously’ or ‘I Am A Caricature’: the war profiteer in The Impregnable Women called Tom Hogpool, who is ‘red-eared, brutally fat, ferret-eyed, and vulgar as a pig in a sty’; the writer’s sisters-in-law in ‘A Sociable Plover’, one ‘a painter in the abstract style, and a Lesbian’, the other a ‘stiff-seeming, soggy-minded lecturer in Economics’; the butt in a story called ‘Escape Forever’ (praised by Mr Parnell because it’s ‘rollicking’ and ‘ends in gales of laughter’) who is ‘pale, pasty, fat and pious, a psalmsinging Presbyterian whose narrow faith was a ludicrous contrast to the spacious circumference of his waist’; most of the large cast of Juan in America, e.g. the scarred mafioso with a beautiful daughter whom he keeps on an island, the ‘inscrutable’ Chinese beauty and the ‘little Jew’ (these really are Linklater’s words) called Isadora Cohen who plays the violin in theatre orchestras, the Republican Presidential candidate called Mr Boomer and the bootlegging ex-boxer called Slummock ... For the reading public in the Thirties (and since), such writing must have come as an exhilarating parade of chauvinist and other prejudices, all marshalled with a conscious style which was literary enough to give them the bonus of feeling that they weren’t reading mere pulp.
Linklater was genuinely preoccupied with war. A bullet nearly brained him on the Somme in 1918, and he spends some chilling realistic chapters on such combat near the start of The Impregnable Women, only to throw their effect away by the lurch into theatrical comedy when the scene shifts to Edinburgh. Later he was to write many official histories of regiments and campaigns, such as Our Men in Korea (1952). Mr Parnell opines that ‘a civilised person could no longer write of war with relish,’ as though this was a recent development. Actually both folksong and the classic novel had been wholly dire in their presentation of warfare since the Napoleonic Wars. Linklater took a middling position. In one of his autobiographies, Fanfare for a Tin Hat (1970), he wrote regarding his own Private Angelo: ‘War, in Italy, was a drunken, destructive and impertinent clown; to deal justly and truthfully with it, one had to keep one’s temper cool, one’s judgment clear, and write a comedy.’ The novel itself is not bad. The plotting is too coincidental and rambling, the kind of sprawl of incidents that gets dignified by the term ‘picaresque’. But the hero, Angelo, is much more interesting in his candid cowardice than the Juan picaro, who is a mere cipher or tabula rasa for assorted escapades, and some of the set-pieces are striking, such as that in which the cultured, degenerate Wehrmacht officer Schlemmer shoots a Piero delta Francesca altarpiece full of holes in his rage at not knowing whether it’s genuine or not.
Again, however, Mr Parnell overplays his hand: ‘what hurt Eric most in his secret heart’ was the novel’s failure to attract ‘permanent attention’ (from whom? – it is still in heavy demand at public libraries), although (Mr Parnell claims) he ‘had written as fine a novel as was likely to come out of the experience of war’. This entails comparisons – with The Naked and the Dead, Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, but especially with Heller’s novel, since much of the satire in Private Angelo, for example the double-edged dialogue in Chapter Five about destroying Italy in order to preserve it, anticipates the extremes of insane logic on which Catch 22 is built. But Mr Parnell doesn’t actually make such comparisons, just gestures distantly towards them. If he had, wouldn’t the conclusion have been unavoidable that Private Angelo is inferior to the Mailer in painful realism, to the Heller in coherence of satirical viewpoint, and to the Vonnegut in comic inventiveness – the power of skidding between planes of reality in order to make the unthinkable real?
Those three novels are genuinely modern – the work of artists driven to innovate by new experiences: the conservative Linklater probably disliked them for that reason. In Fanfare for a Tin Hat he makes his claim for himself as ‘a serious novelist’ on the ground that he has ‘always shown a proper respect for the language ... a respect which is no longer general, or even applauded’. It seems to me that you are not respecting, but congealing, the language by cluttering your style with classical tags and dictionary-words like ‘rutilant’ and ‘marcid’, by labelling characters with names like ‘Hogpool’ and ‘Pretzel-Oppenheim and ‘Pumpenstempel’, and by writing in Edwardian and Georgian manners long after Forster, Lawrence and Joyce, Eliot and MacDiarmid, had transformed our literature. The poetic examples aren’t irrelevant: in Magnus Merriman pages are given up to ridiculing Modernism; Magnus himself writes whole (published) poems in heroic couplets; and Saturday Keith, hero of Poet’s Pub (1929), regrets that his own poetry isn’t ‘arhythmic’ and ‘toneless’ enough to count as poetry in this unlovely modern age.
Mr Parnell just cheerfully endorses such things. He doesn’t even consider that Linklater’s conservatism and comic stereotyping may spring from a syndrome of inability to open himself sufficiently to the whole of experience, including the tragic, or, in Lawrence’s phrase, ‘to have the courage of his tenderness’. The clues are there. In a letter of 1933 Linklater confesses to being ‘always inarticulate when faced with emotional situations’, and in the autobiography The Man on My Back (1941) he says: ‘I did not like myself ... I deprecated the impacted layers of repression that prevented me from being frank and free and emotional.’ The result was a seeming, in the end perhaps a habitual callousness. It is revealing to read, in his most considerable historical book, The Survival of Scotland (1968), a sentence starting, ‘In the temper of today, when social inequalities are deprecated and social injustice is harshly censured ...’, which manages to imply that perhaps we ‘epicene’ and ‘delicate-minded’ moderns make too much of poverty, infant mortality and the like.
Towards the end of an account of the whole Industrial Revolution no longer than his account of the Forty-five he refers to Tom Johnston’s pioneering work, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland, as ‘a valuable and unpleasant book’, as though it was unmannerly to assemble the facts of hardship and social pain. Characteristically, he wrote a whole book (subsidised by the Drambuie Liqueur Co) on the hackneyed epic of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight through the Outer Hebrides. It ends by saying that although the bonny prince ‘brought sorrow and ruin to the Highlands’, he ‘enriched them beyond measure by a story that lives ... among the great stories of the world’. What the bonny prince did – driven by his own patrician egoism – was to bring down on a people a reign of terror in which whole villages were razed (700 sheep, 280 cows, 70 horses, 300 houses and 32 boats on one small island, Raasay), blind girls and pregnant women raped, men cut to pieces and their genitals shoved into their mouths, babies spitted on swords, salmon weirs, fruit gardens and libraries reduced to nothing, the riches of the Highlands (the herds and flocks) butchered or sold in the south. People who want to read this ‘great story’, the story of the genocide following Cülloden, must go to the ‘Fort Augustus’ section of John Prebble’s Culloden. It was published seven years before those historical books by Linklater but it isn’t in their bibliographies – nor is Prebble’s The Highland Clearances. No doubt they too are valuable but unpleasant.